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Nuclear Engineer

Nuclear science is a variable field, with applications ranging from power generation to medical diagnosis and treatment. While many people may think of nuclear weapons or reactors when they think of this field, nuclear engineers deal with issues and applications that go far beyond the stereotypes.

By the editors of gecc

Nuclear engineers can be found doing research, addressing security and proliferation issues, supervising plant operations and designing waste storage facilities. Some, like the U.S. Department of Energy's Colette Brown and Brent Heilman of the Argonne National Laboratory, work in management positions, dealing with political and strategic issues related to nuclear energy, such as plutonium isotope production and nonproliferation issues. On the more technical and traditional side are positions in nuclear power plants, which produce approximately 22% of the electricity in the United States, and the design of advanced nuclear power systems, such as those used by the space program.

While the field has undergone changes recently, with some schools closing down their nuclear engineering departments and plants ceasing operations at the end of their licensing terms, those currently employed in the field are quick to note that opportunities do and will exist in the future. Says Madeline Feltus, associate director of technology in the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, "Right now we only graduate about 200 nuclear engineers a year in the United States. The numbers are dropping precipitously but there are 103 operating nuclear power plants and over half of the engineers out there are over 50 and will retire soon, so there is a future."

One aspect of nuclear engineering that many people find appealing is the broader application of a nuclear engineering education. Amy Goss, a qualified nuclear engineer at ComEd in Marseilles, Ill., comments that the variety within the field was what first attracted her to it. "As a student, I didn't just take nuclear engineering classes. Most of my classes were in the mechanical engineering department. I also had classes in civil, electrical and industrial engineering and I felt that if I ever decided to branch away from nuclear engineering, I had a strong educational background to fall back on. There was a lot of variety to keep it interesting and new."

Branching out into other engineering fields is not the only option; nuclear engineers can be found on Wall Street, for example, doing computational methods for financial modeling. In addition, there is ongoing research into a number of applications for nuclear science and the potential of nuclear fusion.

NAME: Colette Brown

Title: Special Assistant to the Associate Director for Space and Defense Power Systems
Company: U.S. Department of Energy, Germantown, Md.
Education: B.S. in nuclear engineering from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville

Job Description: "On a daily basis I work with our contractors and with the DOE field organizations to manage a given program. That involves not only working with the contractors in the field but also disseminating the necessary information here at headquarters to make sure that other parts of DOE are aware of what we're doing. There are crosscutting issues that need to be worked on collectively, so I'm working with program management issues, budget issues with the controller's office and policy issues with general counsel. I'm really just trying to keep a project alive and moving forward."

Current Projects: "Right now the department is considering whether or not to start producing plutonium 238 again. It's not weapons-grade plutonium, but another isotope of plutonium that we need to make nuclear batteries for the space program. We'd been doing it for 40 years and we stopped making the plutonium 238 isotope at Savannah River in the'80s. We're now considering whether to start making it again somewhere else because our inventory is running low and we predict that NASA will continue to need it. The decision-making process includes an environmental review (which we're in the middle of right now) to allow the Secretary of Energy to decide whether he wants to start up the operation again."

Biggest Job Surprise: "I guess one of the things that surprised me was how little you really apply your engineering technical knowledge. It helps of course, and you can't do your job without it, but you have to rise above the nitty gritty technical details and look at a much bigger picture. Although, maybe that's just the nature of my job. If I was working as a nuclear power plant operator at a commercial power plant in a control room I probably wouldn't be saying that. But the nature of my job being program management, I really don't use all the semesters and semesters of calculus and physics and all that. That becomes background knowledge that is helpful but not directly applicable to the day-to-day activities."

Biggest Problems Encountered: "Fighting Capitol Hill for money. It's a constant battle and because the government works with three budget cycles at a time, we're executing the '99 budget, defending the 2000 budget on the Hill with Congress, and working with our own controller on the 2001 budget right now. There's always a budget defense exercise going on and it involves defending your budgets in light of changing priorities, not only for the Office of Nuclear Energy, but for the department as a whole. It's an ongoing battle."

How She Knew This Was the Field for Her: "At the University of Virginia, the nuclear engineering department was recruiting heavily and they were recruiting women, so they sought me out as opposed to me finding them. But the reason I really went into it was that I speak French fluently and I know how strong the French nuclear industry is (it's one of the strongest in the world). I thought the combination of a nuclear engineering degree and my language skills would one day help me land a job where I could use both, and it has helped here already. I'm the U.S. technical representative on a United Nations committee on the peaceful uses of outer space and we regularly have to meet with other countries, so when I meet with the French I work with them in French."

Advice to Future Nuclear Engineers: "Nuclear engineering graduates are a dying breed these days. Many nuclear engineering departments around the country are closing down and my advice would be to not let that discourage you. Nuclear energy will continue to be a viable source of energy, and at some point I think we're going to see a surge in demand for nuclear engineers.

"I would also encourage students who are getting into the field to learn how to speak Russian. It would be a great asset. We're working more and more with the Russians on improving the safety of their nuclear power plants. This is a 50-year problem. I've seen people get some really nice positions in the nuclear safety and nuclear engineering world because they have the extra asset of knowing the language."

NAME: Brent Heilman

Title: Engineering Specialist, Engineering Research Division
Company: Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Ill.
Education: B.S. in nuclear engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Job Description: "What we do here is support the Department of Energy and one of its nuclear nonproliferation programs. We provide daily support, reviewing nuclear exports outside of the United States to see if there are any proliferation concerns. We also get involved with DOE people in Washington and give them technical support on nuclear nonproliferation policy, both domestically and multilaterally. We also do projects where we'll look at emerging technologies to see if there are any nuclear proliferation concerns associated with them."

Current Projects: "One of the things that we've been working on is related to a multilateral group called the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which meets in Vienna once or twice a year. They come up with a list of items that nuclear supplier countries should not export haphazardly. We've been on a team with all the different [national] labs to look at the list of controlled items for the next meeting to see if there are any changes, additions or deletions that should be suggested by the U.S. delegation."

Biggest Job Surprise: "In school they teach you tons of technical stuff and, at least in my experience, there's a lot more to know beyond that. There are a lot of administrative things that you have to learn and get used to and you need to understand the bureaucracy. Also, you need to learn things like project management, funding and budgets which are necessary to make things work. As a result of that, I'm going for my MBA."

Advice to Future Nuclear Engineers: "There's a perception that the nuclear field in the United States is dying and I don't believe that's totally true. It's not growing, but there's still a lot of need for people and there are still a lot of exciting things to do. I think right now there's a big push to give everybody a more general background so that they can adapt to different situations better. I think being able to adapt is a huge key to success, but I think that's true in anything, not just nuclear engineering."

NAME: Amanda (Amy) Goss

Title: Qualified Nuclear Engineer, Reactor Engineering Group
Company: Commonwealth Edison, LaSalle Station, Marseilles, Ill.
Education: B.S. in nuclear engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.

Job Description: "It's never the same from one day to the next. Usually we're involved in performing surveillances at the plant and planning power maneuvers and refueling outages. We're also highly involved in implementing changes to station procedures and performing technical reviews for design changes and other activities that may affect reactivity. There's a lot of time that goes into cycle planning; we're always looking at what needs to be done to make sure that we're going to be able to maintain 100% power. Most of our power adjustments are performed when there is low demand for power (i.e., in the middle of the night or on weekends). We have to determine when the maneuvers need to be done and make sure that we have personnel available to participate in the evolutions."

Why She Took the Job: "I knew when I graduated that I wanted to work at a power plant right away. At some utilities, there are reactor core designers and other support personnel who do not actually work at the plants. I felt that before I could do one of those types of jobs I needed to understand how the plant worked. I didn't feel that I would be able to do as good a job in one of those positions if I didn't understand the daily operation of the plant. LaSalle also has two fairly new reactors; they both started commercial operation in the early 1980s. So, the plant has a long future ahead of it. As a recent graduate, I saw a number of potential opportunities available to me at such a young plant. In addition, LaSalle has a rigorous reactor engineering training program. The attention that is given to qualification of the reactor engineers greatly appealed to me, as I had no prior experience at a commercial power facility."

Current Project: "One of my job responsibilities is to perform the functions of the site fuel reliability engineer. We currently have a fuel defect in one of our reactors and we want to determine what caused it (i.e., manufacturing error, debris, reactor operation, etc.). In order to do that, we'll have to remove the fuel bundle during our upcoming refueling outage and schedule a series of inspections. I'm currently coordinating the testing schedule and writing the procedures that will be necessary to implement the fuel bundle inspection."

Biggest Job Surprise: "I was surprised at how much planning it takes to perform some of our evolutions and job functions. We don't come to work five days a week and then leave after eight hours with everything finished. The demand for electricity requires us to continually look for ways to improve our productivity, while always being sure to keep safety in mind. There's a qualified nuclear engineer on call 24 hours a day who needs to be aware of all things going on in the plant. If we're called in the middle of the night, we need to be alert and able to listen to what the plant needs from us. If an activity is to be worked around the clock, we may have to go on shift and come in on weekends. When I first started my job, I was somewhat surprised at how much time is put in during off-hours. But it's sporadic; sometimes we go for long periods of time without having to alter our schedules. On other occasions, we may change our schedules weekly in order to accommodate the work that is being done at the plant."

Advice to Future Nuclear Engineers: "The most important recommendation that I could make to future nuclear engineers is to research the field to make sure that it is right for them. There are many ways for students to get information about the field of nuclear power. I encourage use of both the Internet and industry publications, as well as involvement in professional societies. There are also individuals within the field who can be contacted to discuss industry issues. There have been many changes in the industry in the last few years. Engineering students need to do the research and then ask themselves two questions-'Is this the type of work that I will enjoy?' and 'Is there really a future in it for me?'"

NAME: Madeline Feltus

Title: Associate Director of Technology, Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology
Company: U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C.
Education: B.S. in nuclear engineering, M.S. in reactor physics and nuclear engineering, master's of philosophy in thermal hydraulics, Ph.D. in nuclear engineering, Columbia University, New York

Job Description: "The nicest surprise is that the group I'm leading likes working together. That's interesting because there have been different political things that have happened to nuclear energy in this department in the past that could have been troublesome, but everyone is very professional and they really like to work with each other. The biggest surprise is my ability to juggle things in the sense that I have to, because things are changing every day."

Biggest Problems Encountered: "Problems that I used to solve in industry were usually not just knowing how to apply the computer tools, but also getting folks down in the trenches at the power plant to realize that things they were doing would impact the licensing of the power plant. Someone would change a valve on a piece of equipment and not realize that the way the valve functions could lead to a problem inside the reactor vessel itself during an accident. So that was the sort of thing that I had to handle regularly, getting that analysis done so that everyone would know what was happening. "The biggest current problem we're solving here is trying to work within the DOE system to get things done. There are very strict rules and I don't know all of them; I want to be creative in the way we solve problems but I can't go against the rules."

Best Career Advice She's Received: "I think the best advice I've ever had was people telling me to be a continuous learner. When I was teaching [at Penn State] and doing research, my job was to learn faster than my students. I made sure I always learned something in my own technology but also continued to learn other engineering disciplines, like particular computers, parallel computation or more mechanical engineering. The idea is always to pick up a new skill as you go along. At the DOE, there's technology in my group that I'm not involved with directly, and I know theoretically what's going on but I want to learn more about it."

How She Knew This Was the Field for Her: "I aimed high. I'd looked at the program at Columbia, asked which engineering discipline had the strongest math and science requirements and decided to strive for those, knowing that I could 'drop back into' mechanical or the other engineering disciplines. I've had people ask me, 'How did you know that you wanted to do engineering versus physics?' and the answer is that I always wanted to do the applied stuff. I knew I wanted to do engineering and before I got into college I knew that I was going to do nuclear engineering, although I didn't know much about what it was."

Advice to Future Nuclear Engineers: "A good nuclear engineer is not just interested in the nuclear technology. A good nuclear engineer needs to have a strong basis in electrical, mechanical and civil engineering. You really do need to know broader engineering because as a nuclear engineer you need to know systems for nuclear power plants. You also have to know about the interaction of neutrons, alpha particles and things like that. You need to be much broader than just the discipline. "Nuclear engineering is not just nuclear plant and reactor core design. Nuclear engineering students have gone into computational methods and parallel processing, medical applications of nuclear engineering, environmental management for nuclear and hazardous waste, and some have even gone into business applications."

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